As for the origin of the word Tasawwuf, it may well be from Sufi, the person who does Tasawwuf, which seems to be etymologically prior to it, for the earliest mention of either term was by Hasan al-Basri who died 110 years after the Hijra, and is reported to have said, "I saw a Sufi circumambulating the Kaaba, and offered him a dirham, but he would not accept it." It therefore seems better to understand Tasawwuf by first asking what a Sufi is; and perhaps the best definition of both the Sufi and his way, certainly one of the most frequently quoted by masters of the discipline, is from the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) who said:

Allah Most High says: "He who is hostile to a friend of Mine I declare war against. My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him, and My slave keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks. If he asks me, I will surely give to him, and if he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him" (Fath al-Bari, 11.340–41, Hadiths 6502);

This hadith was related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bayhaqi, and others with multiple contiguous chains of transmission, and is sahih. It discloses the central reality of Tasawwuf, which is precisely change, while describing the path to this change, in conformity with a traditional definition used by masters in the Middle East, who define a Sufi as Faqihun ‘amila bi ‘ilmihi fa awrathahu Llahu ‘ilma ma lam ya‘lam,‘A man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.’

To clarify, a Sufi is a man of religious learning, because the Hadith says, "My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him," and only through learning can the Sufi know the command of Allah, or what has been made obligatory for him. He has applied what he knew, because the hadith says he not only approaches Allah with the obligatory, but "keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him." And in turn, Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know, because the Hadith says, "And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks," which is a metaphor for the consummate awareness of tawhid, or the ‘unity of Allah,’ which in the context of human actions such as hearing, sight, seizing, and walking, consists of realizing the words of the Qur'an about Allah that, 

"It is He who created you and what you do" (Qur'an 37:96).

The origin of the way of the Sufi thus lies in the prophetic sunna. The sincerity to Allah that it entails was the rule among the earliest Muslims, to whom this was simply a state of being without a name, while it only became a distinct discipline when the majority of the Community had drifted away and changed from this state. Muslims of subsequent generations required systematic effort to attain it, and it was because of the change in the Islamic environment after the earliest generations, that a discipline by the name of Tasawwuf came to exist

Tasawwuf, in the most general terms, may be defined as an emotional approach to reality of life. It is held by the materialists (those who believe that matter is the ultimate reality in life) that all knowledge is due to the activity of the intellect, which provides the only infallible avenue to a knowledge of the world. The sufi on the other hand, are of the opinion that intellect can only deal with the world of senses. Beyond the material world, there is a spiritual world to which reason has no access and which can only be approached through feeling. It is, there for, a part of the discipline of a sufi to develop the latter at the expense of the former. He believes that it is only freedom from the tyranny of reason that the real nature of the universe is apprehended.

To the sufi the whole world and everything in it is permeated with a divine essence which is the life of the universe, the only reality in a world of shadows. In a higher stage of mystical insight, the perception of the divine becomes so strong and clear that the material world, through which the divine truth is perceived, is not felt at all, and the sufi feels that nothing exits but God. He is the only reality; the rest is an illusion, the snares of the senses, which it is the business of a mystic to escape. To attain this goal one must be unspotted by the world. A person whose mind is engrossed in material things is unfit for the spiritual life of the mystic.

From this it follows that contentment, distrust of the world and contempt for riches and rank are an integral part of the ethics of Tasawwuf.

Today, Tasawwuf is in disrepute. It is being attached for its belief in unreality of the world and for its advocacy of inaction. And yet, as the lives of the great mystics show, the genuine sufi was anything but brain-sick and languid dreamer. The evils associated with Tasawwuf by its modern critics were more than counterbalanced by its great services. To begin with , Tasawwuf was in the past one of the strongest forces making for active benevolence and service to mankind. Its leading exponents, to name a few, Ibne Arabi, Gazali,Rabia Basri, Bayazid, Rumi, Attar and Jami in the middle east and Ali Hajervi known as Data Gunj Bakhsh, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty, known as Gharib Nawaz, list of Chishty sages in the Indian subcontinent were the master spirits of their times.

The ethical system they preached is the highest we can conceive. They believe that virtue is its own reward, and condemned the calculating goodness of the selfish clergy whose piety and devotion were motivated by the desire of reward in the hereafter. More important still, Tasawwuf gave self respect to mankind. During the middle ages, when man had been reduced to the position of an abject slave by despotism, it was mysticism alone that glorified him as divine in origin, and gave him hope and confidence. The greats service of Tasawwuf was that it was the only tolerant system in the world from which tolerance had been ruthlessly outlawed. The sufi taught that all systems contained an element of truth and were divine in origin. Hence mysticism strove to bring man close to man, when theologians were doing all that was possible to breed intolerance and hatred. As a great Indian scholar Shibli Naumani said “It had a good effect on ethics. The enmity which was spread by jurists and theologians on the basis of difference of opinion, and which had led to a perpetual war between Muslims and non-Muslims, nay, between the different sects of the Muslims themselves, was removed, and thoughts of universal love and sympathy began to grow apace”.

Is it not time that the hearts of those who believe should be humbled to the Remembrance of God and the Truth which He has sent down, and that they should not be as those to whom the Book was given aforetime, and the term seemed over long to them, so that their hearts have become hard, and many of them are ungodly? Know that God revives the earth after it was dead. We have indeed made clear for you the signs, that haply you will understand.
(Quran al Kareem 57-16/17)


  1. Quotes from The Holy Quran & Hadiths
  2. Article by Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
  3. Book “A History of Urdu Literature” by Mohammed Sadiq)